Countdown to Reformation Day: New Catechisms

Thursday, 04 May 2017

In cooperation with the Gospel Coalition, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has recently produced the New City Catechism. Their motivation is commendable. Back in 1996, we at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals sponsored a meeting of church leaders from different denominations to draft a statement called “The Cambridge Declaration.”

Similar in motive (though not effect!) to Luther’s famous theses, our intention in the Cambridge Declaration was simply to put some issues on the front burner. Much to our surprise, we discovered that many churches were using it as a confession. We tried to assure people that, unlike a confession or catechism, the Cambridge Declaration was limited in its scope. It wasn’t intended to fill out the breadth and depth of what Christians should know and confess; it simply highlights critical concerns in our churches of the present moment. Clearly, there is a hunger for something like a confession and catechism in evangelical circles. The authors of the New City Catechism seek to answer that need.

The ancient church flourished where believers—recent converts and lifelong disciples, young and old—shared a common confession (“the rule of faith”) and taught that faith in a common catechism. With their question-and-answer format, these basic instruction guides contributed greatly to building up the body in maturity and sound doctrine into Christ who is the head.

The revival of catechisms was one of the outstanding achievements of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Although “catechism” sounds Roman Catholic to many, it was the success of Reformation catechisms that provoked Rome to offer its own alternative. Luther was shocked to discover on his pastoral rounds that few could even recite the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer. That’s why his Small Catechism is clustered around these three basic summaries. Other catechisms, like Calvin’s as well as the Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter, followed suit. These catechisms were important to the missionary work of the Reformation. In fact, the first Protestant missionaries to the New World took the Portuguese Geneva Catechism to Brazil. The catechism was seen as a key resource for “making disciples of all nations.”

The Heidelberg Catechism appeared in 1563. Quickly translated into Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Polish, and Hungarian, it even appeared in Hebrew at the hands of a Jewish convert who became a Reformed theologian and pastor. It was used for confirmation classes in the Church of England and was taught to all incoming undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1646, the Church of England—during its Presbyterian era—was commissioned by Parliament to produce what became the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (Smaller and Larger).

Drawing on the wisdom of J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett in their book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers in the Old-Fashioned Way (Baker Books, 2010), the authors of the New City Catechism, Tim Keller and Sam Shammas, see a great need in our day for recovering catechism at church and in the home. They are especially to be commended for encouraging catechism as a family affair, with children and parents learning and growing together. Public worship and public instruction should be supplemented by family worship and instruction. Catechism is a powerful tool employed by the Spirit to that end, and Pastor Keller has made a persuasive case for the need to recover the practice.

Reviewing the New City Catechism

One encouraging feature of the New City Catechism (NCC) is that it draws from both the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC). In terms of core teachings, these catechisms are very similar. In other words, the NCC doesn’t start from scratch but makes use of the faithful teaching of the past. The NCC is substantially shorter than the standards mentioned. Its 52 questions more conveniently fit an annual calendar, compared with the 107 questions of the WSC and the 129 questions of the HC (note, however, that the HC is organized as 52 Lord’s Days, with more than one question per week). Here is a selective comparison of the NCC to the earlier catechisms:

1.The Decalogue: Two or three of the Ten Commandments are grouped together in the questions, which loses some of the richness of the fuller treatments of each; the distinction between the first and second table of the law could be blurred with the combining of the fourth and fifth commandments in the NCC. Nevertheless, at a time when the exposition of the Decalogue receives little attention in regular instruction and even public worship, the basic substance is retained in the abbreviated NCC version.

2.The Lord’s Prayer: The Lord’s Prayer is recited, but without exposition (compared with eleven questions in the HC and nine in the WSC).

3.The Apostles’ Creed: The HC asks “What then must a Christian believe?” by first stating the Apostles’ Creed, with a question-and-answer (or more) devoted to each article. All told, there are 30 questions unpacking the creed. The basic goal of the HC is to teach the creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. That’s why the questions are wrapped around those three major expositions. Although the creed appears in the NCC (Q 31), there isn’t an exposition. Nothing of substance is lost, but the creed doesn’t structure the questions; without an explicit exposition, people aren’t as likely to learn the creed itself.

4.Preaching and the Sacraments: When it comes to the Word and sacraments, Reformed churches have emphasized the priority of God’s activity. Through the preaching of the law, the Spirit slays the sinner; through the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit gives faith. Baptism and the Supper, too, are first and foremost God’s promise and work. They provoke our response, and only in faith do we receive the reality promised. Nevertheless, preaching and the sacraments are truly means of grace. In the NCC, our response to God’s work and the horizontal effects of God’s work are emphasized but not the means by which God does that work.

Let me explain by comparison. The WSC first says that God’s Word, “especially the preaching thereof,” is a “means of grace” (Q 89). Then it makes a biblical point about how we hear God’s Word to our profit (Q 90). The NCC includes the latter verbatim but omits the former. Furthermore, the older catechisms refer first to God’s action through the sacraments, which are made “effectual means of salvation” by the Spirit who gives us faith to receive the reality that they signify and seal to us (WSC Q 91). As the HC puts it, “In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us and through the holy sacraments he assures us that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross” (Q 66). Through these means of grace, “ordained by Christ,” “Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (WSC Qs 91-92).

In fact, the NCC asks the HC’s question, “Where does this faith come from?” (NCC Q 34). However, the NCC answers, “All the gifts we receive from Christ we receive through the Holy Spirit, including faith itself,” while the HC answers, “The Holy Spirit creates [faith] in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments” (HC Q 65). In roughly the same space, the HC attributes faith to the Holy Spirit, but it includes the means he uses to create and confirm it, which are preaching and the sacraments.

5.Baptism: The WSC says that baptism is first “a sacrament wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace” as well as “our engagement to be the Lord’s” (WSC Q 94). Over against Zwingli, Calvin labored this point that the sacraments are first and foremost the means through which the Triune God delivers Christ and his benefits, and then secondarily that they also call forth our response. In the NCC, however, the sacraments are first of all “visible signs and seals that we are bound together as a community of faith by [Christ’s] death and resurrection” (emphasis added). The order has been reversed: “By our use of them the Holy Spirit more fully declares and seals the promises of the gospel to us” (NCC Q 43). And significantly, the baptism of covenant children is entirely omitted from the NCC (compared with HC Q 74 and WSC Q 95).

6.The Lord’s Supper: The NCC answer on the Lord’s Supper mentions that it is “a celebration of the presence of God in our midst; bringing us into communion with God and with one another; feeding and nourishing our souls” (Q 46). Surprisingly, reference is made simply to the presence of and communion with God, whereas the Reformed churches hold more specifically that it is not only God or even the omnipresent deity of Christ, but the whole Christ according to both natures who is given to us by the Spirit through these means. To be sure, the presence of Christ in the Supper is controversial among evangelicals, but its affirmation is key in all of the Reformed confessions and catechisms. The WSC speaks of believers being “made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace” (Q 96). The HC explains how the Supper assures everyone who receives it through faith in Christ with all of his benefits (HC Q 75; see also Q 79).

Gospel Movements and Gospel Churches

It is wonderful to participate in the growth of a gospel-centered movement within evangelicalism, especially one that has brought renewed vitality to Reformed and Presbyterian churches. In my estimation, this common witness is to be celebrated. For more than two decades, Modern Reformation has provided a forum for Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, and nondenominational Christians to celebrate what unites us. We come to our shared convictions not by setting aside these differences, but by letting each voice speak in its own dialect, according to its own confession. Those who take the differences seriously (without forgetting the proper proportion) are more likely to take the agreements seriously as well. For example, Calvinistic Baptists used Keach’s Catechism (1677). Based on Westminster, it even follows the Shorter Catechism’s affirmation of preaching as well as baptism and the Supper as “means of grace.” However, it restricts baptism to those who actually profess faith and repentance (Q 101) and, in case anyone was wondering, this excludes the infant children of believers (Q 102). Question 103 makes faithful baptism to consist in immersion. Here we find a great example of finding unity wherever possible, while teaching a distinctively Baptist position where differences arise. Neither side treated these differences as unworthy of including in basic instruction.

While the gospel-centered movement in evangelical circles is enormously encouraging, catechisms are produced by churches for churches. Whatever esteem in which the authors were held, the Reformation catechisms maintained their status only by being officially sanctioned by churches. Baptist, Lutheran, and Reformed bodies have acknowledged their wide areas of agreement, but is there a danger in relegating differences to irrelevance—falling outside the periphery of “gospel issues”? Surely we do not deny that those who disagree with us on these points are fellow believers. For all of their differences, these traditions agree that their distinctive convictions about matters like infant baptism should be included in a basic summary of God’s Word. Indeed, they would all acknowledge that the most glaring difference turns to matters related to the application of the gospel (especially with regard to baptism).

Abraham Kuyper brilliantly pointed out long ago that it’s simply sectarian for a Reformed, Lutheran, or Baptist—or any other body—to have a separate existence if it doesn’t actually confess distinctive teachings it regards as important in Scripture. I realize that a catechism has a different (more “bottom shelf”) purpose than a confession, but ideally shouldn’t it teach what actual churches confess? However helpful movements may be in God’s providence, Christ founded a church and churches confess their faith. When movements act like churches, the former become shallow and short-lived and the latter are impoverished. The history of evangelicalism provides a long series of cautionary tales in that regard.

I’m not opposed in principle to the idea that confessions and catechisms may be improved or even replaced, especially to accommodate responses to new contexts. At least in my reading, however, the NCC doesn’t include a single question and answer addressing uniquely contemporary questions. In fact, one of the strengths of the NCC is that it doesn’t reflect the idiosyncrasies of the authors and the uniqueness of their ministry context, as I’m sure mine would if I were to write one!

I guess my main question, then, is why we need a new catechism. If it’s to provide a resource for a gospel-centered movement that lacks a catechism, I can think of none better than the New City Catechism. However, I’m still convinced that the standard catechisms have stood the test of time and cultural diversity. They address the core Christian confession that binds us together across all times and places.

One benefit of churches being responsible for catechisms is that they become officially received in their local and broader assemblies by a process of mutual admonition and correction. Like the creeds and confessions, their genius lies in the fact that they do not address every question that might have been peculiar to their cultural context. They don’t even address every important question that arises from God’s Word, but they teach the faith in a basic way to the body of Christ. Rooted in the Reformation, the New City Catechism reflects a judicious blend of two catechisms that have gained wide acceptance in our churches. For my money, though, basic instruction in the faith at home and church can surely do no better at present than to continue to unwrap the gifts that keep on giving.

 

Michael S. Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation.

 

Backbone of the Faith

Heidelberg Catechism
The HC offers its own quick-reference table of contents with its second question, which then presents the structure of the catechism in its entirety in the following terms:

  • “Guilt” (Qs 3-11): Explaining Matthew 22:37-40
  • “Grace” (Qs 12-85): Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (Qs 23-58)
  • “Gratitude” (Qs 86-129): Exploring the Ten Commandments (Qs 92-115) and the Lord’s Prayer (Qs 116-129), the latter being the chief part of gratitude

Westminster Shorter Catechism
In similar fashion, the WSC explains its two-part structure in Q 3 in aid of memorization and as a summary of Scripture:

  • “Faith” (Qs 4-38): What the Christian is to believe concerning God
  • “Duty” (Qs 39-107): What duty the Christians owes to God; exploring the Ten Commandments (Qs 42-81) and the Lord’s Prayer (Qs 100-107)

New City Catechism
The NCC comes in three parts. It is not as easy to commit to memory as “Guilt,” “Grace,” “Gratitude” or “Faith” and “Duty,” but it certainly covers the same themes in abbreviated form. Its structure is further organized in a threefold manner, according to the persons of the Trinity, the movement of redemptive history, and aspects of the Christian life:

  • “God, Creation & Fall, Law” (Part 1, Qs 1-20): Exploring the Ten Commandments (Qs 8-12)
  • “Christ, Redemption, Grace” (Part 2, Qs 21-35): Memorizing the Apostles’ Creed (Q 31)
  • “Spirit, Restoration, Growing in Grace” (Part 3, Qs 36-52): Memorizing the Lord’s Prayer (Q 41)
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